The Eagle Creek Trail in Oregon is one of the most treasured hikes in the Columbia River Gorge, and one of the best highlights is taking a refreshing dip at the base of Punch Bowl Falls.
This side of the river has North America’s largest concentration of waterfalls, with 77 of them in just 420 square miles. The Eagle Creek Trail accesses 11 of them, and is also a geological wonder with fossil bearing rock formations that are more than 20 million years old containing about 40 tropical forest plant species.
Following a devastating forest fire in 2017 that scorched the area and forced its closure for years, the Eagle Creek Trail has been restored and reopened to the public–though some of its natural features have changed. Punchbowl Falls used to be inaccessible unless you paddled or swam; now, landslides have pushed huge boulders into the gorge that some visitors climb over to get near the base of the waterfall on foot.
While most day-trippers turn back after the relatively quick hike into Punch Bowl, there’s plenty more to explore along the full 13 mile route such as Tunnel Falls or Wahtum Lake near the base of Mt Hood. Here’s everything you need to know before tackling the Eagle Creek Trail up to Punch Bowl Falls.
How to get to Eagle Creek Trail Oregon
The Eagle Creek trailhead is near Cascade Locks, Oregon across from the Bonneville Dam. Take I-84 and turn off at Exit 41, which is a 30 minute drive from Hood River and about 50 minutes from Portland.
There are three parking lots on-site including one for larger trailers, and a valid recreation pass or day use fee is required. There are restrooms and a picnic area near the start of the trail, and camping is allowed in any of the seven designated sites.
Hiking the Eagle Creek Trail to the Punchbowl waterfall
Eagle Creek to Punchbowl Falls is the most popular route, as most visitors are day trippers looking to cool off under the waterfall. The orange Eagle Creek Bridge marks the start of the two-mile walk, which is considered a moderate hike thanks to its very mild incline. But don’t let its easy rating fool you; the steep rock faces and water crossings encountered further down the trail make it essential to be prepared for and stay focused on your footing.
The dirt pathway up is framed by soaring basalt cliffs, with views of the water most of the way. The fire damage is apparent in the surrounding forest where the charred stumps of trees remain, yet the area has made a remarkable recovery and still has plenty of lush greenery.
Eventually you’ll reach a sheer rock face where tiny waterfalls trickle down, and the steep drop off on the other side looks right down into the valley below. This is one section to pay close attention to due to the risk of falling, and while there aren’t guardrails there’s a cable attached to the rocks to hold on to.
The Eagle Creek Trail mellows out by the time you hit a switchback at Sorenson Creek, and there are a handful of waterfalls though most are inaccessible and can only be seen from a distance like 150-foot tall Metlako Falls and the horsetail-shaped Loowit Falls.
Soon after, you’ll see a couple of trail markers including one pointing down to Lower Punch Bowl Falls. A set of stairs leads to the base of the creek, and that’s when the real adventure begins.
Huge boulders and loose rocks now obstruct the once-clear vantage point to the falls, and to get there you’ll need to do a series of scrambling and water crossings over logs which takes about 15 minutes. The toughest part is at the very end, where one log links the trail with a rocky ledge that’s popular with sunbathers. Put your balance to the test, or simply jump in to get across!
This area in front of the falls is a great place to relax, go for a cold swim in the clear plunge pool and have a picnic. Be sure to pack a swimsuit, towel, and sandals with a good sole…or an inflatable SUP.
Continuing along the Eagle Creek Trail
Most hikers turn back after Punchbowl Falls; however, there are a few notable spots further along the Eagle Creek Trail which is also a popular detour for those completing the Pacific Crest Trail.
High Bridge is three miles in and traverses a narrow chasm 150 feet above the creek, while the six-mile mark is where you’ll find Tunnel Falls where the trail cuts into a ledge of solid basalt and hikers can pass right behind it. Wahtum Lake is at the end of the 13.3 mile trail, and backcountry camping is available.
Loops are possible via connecting trails into the Mark O. Hatfield Wilderness or the Mt. Hood National Forest, though hikers will want to confirm accessibility before heading out due to trail closures caused by the 2017 fire.
Important notes about the Eagle Creek Trail
- Monitor the US Forest Service site before heading out, as there can be intermittent trail closures.
- The Eagle Creek Trail is a frequent spot for search and rescue operations, so be prepared with food, water and a GPS device and the ability to stay overnight if you plan on heading far down the trail.
- Cliff jumping off of Punch Bowl Falls is not permitted.
- Wear good shoes, and keep dogs on-leash.
- Despite its moderate grade, the Eagle Creek Trail can be dangerous due to the steep cliff sides without railings and water crossings. It is not recommended for children or those with accessibility issues.
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- The incredible Wahclella Falls trail in Oregon
- The waterfalls in Starvation Creek State Park, Oregon
- The stunning Dry Creek Falls hike near Cascade Locks, Oregon
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Tamara Elliott is the travel editor and founder of The Gorge Guide, which highlights the best experiences in the Columbia River Gorge. She’s an award-winning writer based in Hood River, Oregon, who particularly loves the area wineries and waterfall hikes. Tamara is also the founder of Globe Guide, which offers savvy tips for exploring destinations around the world.